“¿Cuándo fue? “, The 10th track from Rauw Alejandro’s new album” Vice Versa “, provides an unexpected jolt. As the Puerto Rican singer mourns the departure of a lover, producer Tainy mixes streams of synths and delicate percussion, leaving them bleeding in a hiss of warm air. Suddenly, a nervous breakbeat falls, plunging the track into rave territory. The transition is like a static shock, the equivalent of dragging the floor in warm socks and touching a doorknob.
Ten years ago, it was perhaps unimaginable to hear this kind of moment on a mainstream Spanish-speaking star’s album. But Alejandro refuses to be cataloged in one sound. The 28-year-old artist has quietly emerged as a musical renegade, despite maintaining an imposing presence in the upper echelons of Latin pop.
“Vice Versa”, which follows last year’s “Afrodisíaco”, develops this vision, embracing melody and an unwavering (but calculated) desire to implode traditional pop and reggaeton structures. The album crosses the lines of house music, baile funk, bolero and beyond, eschewing convention and reveling in the thrill of infinity. Whatever the genre, Alejandro takes on the role of a playboy, delivering songs of love, lust and emphasis.
Alejandro stepped out of SoundCloud’s creative playground in 2014 with his first mixtape, “Punto de equilibrio”. “Trap Cake, Vol. 1” was his first official release, a 2019 EP that positioned him as a forerunner of the putative Spanish-speaking R&B movement. But he abandoned that label with “Afrodisíaco”, which signaled a desire to get rid of the constraints of the genre. It included features required of reggaeton and trap heavy hitters like J Balvin and Anuel AA, necessary for any newcomer hoping to establish its relevance. But he also dabbled in house and synth pop, suggesting that Alejandro had more ambitious designs in mind.
“Vice Versa” expands on these experimental efforts, partially reinforced by the work of Tainy, the mad scientist behind some of Bad Bunny’s most virtuoso pieces and pushing the limits. Alejandro also draws inspiration from elements of club culture on the other songs on the album: “Cosa guapa” – produced by Eydren Con El Ritmo, M. NaisGai, El Zorro, Kenobi and Caleb Calloway – opens as a Elegie not quite dancehall for an old flame, but transforms into a vengeful deep house, pierced with eerie sirens and the liquid groove of a four-floor rhythm. “Let me tell you something,” Alejandro warns in English. “I no longer need you.”
Although electronic music is the protagonist of Alejandro’s innovation on “Vice Versa”, he also ventures into other worlds. “Brazilera,” which stars Rio de Janeiro-born superstar Anitta, is a delightful escape into baile funk, the genre’s familiar boom-cha-cha-cha-cha slowing down to a reggaeton tempo halfway, only to accelerate back to its original lightning speed a few seconds later. Anitta spices up the runway with a shy dance floor command that demands to be shouted out at full volume at the club after 15 months of confinement.
The honeyed textures of Alejandro’s voice, brought to the fore on the R & B-trap-reggaeton hybrid “Aquel nap ZzZz”, set him apart from pop-reggaeton singers whose melodies tend to overflow with sickening sentimentality. He also has a knack for strategically deploying nostalgia: “La old skul” nods to early 2000s reggaeton, sampling classics that define the genre like “En la cama” by Daddy Yankee and Nicky Jam, as well as “Siéntelo” by Sir Speedy.
Together, these maneuvers are a sign of a necessary expansion of the potential of Alejandro and of Spanish-speaking pop in general. Much of the mainstream music topping the Billboard Latin charts today falls into predictable patterns, diluting the most dynamic elements of reggaeton into a pop format – a reality that has produced critical surrounding the whitening of the genre. For the most part, Alejandro gets around this pitfall by drawing on a more eclectic palette.
Alejandro’s experimentation isn’t always successful, however: “Nubes” is a sweet pop-reggaeton designed to be a radio hit, while “Tengo un pal” is a harmless trap-pop that draws on a little too much on the facsimiles of Travis Scott ad-libs. But the valleys of “Vice Versa” are rare. Along with his collaborators and beatmakers, he mapped out the most bizarre possibilities in Spanish-speaking pop. Now their peers will have to learn to catch up – or be doomed for a lifetime of watering down reggaeton.